And the Past Continues to Walk our Streets …

Over the last week, there’s been much written and spoken about the riots that ensued on the 12th of July in Ardoyne. There has been a cacophony of condemnations, justifications, denunciations and declarations.

But is any one listening?

In a post yesterday on the Compromise after Conflict blog, Francis Teeney reminded us that if you look at the cold, hard numbers, not that many people in Northern Ireland actually seem to care about parading. He writes:

“… less than half of 1% of the population are devoutly interested enough in parading to take to 500 yards of road to protest about it and 99.5% of the population spread over a land mass of 5,456 square miles do not bother.”

With the hint today that “unionism is heading towards a Drumcree-style approach at Ardoyne,” implying the prospect of a long, drawn-out process of protest, one wonders if this is the best strategy to convince a wider populace that at best (as Teeney claims) doesn’t care and at worst blames the Orange Order and its parades for the disturbances.

A Drumcree-style approach (and where did that get the Orange Order?) would seem only to confirm the worst stereotypes of the Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist (PUL) community, unfortunately perpetrated by Brian John Spencer on Eamonn Mallie’s normally more constructive blog. In a sweeping post that condemns, dehumanizes and demonizes, Spencer writes:

“I’ve written before that this is where the battle line will lie in the coming Century: between the tolerant and plural people of modernity (Protestant and Catholic) and the thug-merchants of reaction and the past (Protestant and Catholic).

… In Northern Ireland we have a political and street-thug class wedded to the past. Both live in a world where moderation is anathema; they’re a doctrinal people in which doctrine is eternally true and cannot be changed.

The majority of Northern Ireland has got past the messianic absolutism and the barbarism that comes with it – only a select and minority set on the street and in government haven’t.

When are we going to stand up, say a clear and confident “No!” and make our barbaric inheritance history?”

Like Spencer, I don’t want the images of Northern Ireland that have been beamed around the world this week to define the place where I live. And I agree that the vast majority of people here have abdicated responsibility for transforming our divided society. To our great detriment the contributions they could make to civic and political life have been lost through disillusionment and a political system deliberately structured along sectarian lines that reward the political parties that take the most ‘extreme’ positions.

But I don’t think it helps to reduce the disturbances around the 12th to a problem of a ‘thug class’ (both on the streets and in Stormont). It only sets up an enlightened ‘modern’ US versus a stunted ‘pre-modern’ THEM. This not only simplifies the situation but – much like the way the Orange Order and some church and political figures have evaded responsibility for inciting violence – gets ‘US’ off the hook for confronting the sectarianism that permeates all aspects of Northern Irish society.

Name-calling and demonization also allow ‘US’ to ignore the grievances that form the all-important backdrop and context for the riots and for the past year’s flag protests, including the frustration in some PUL communities of being left behind economically and educationally, and left behind in a peace process in which it is perceived that the Historical Enquires Team is targeting loyalists while the violence of the ‘other side’ seems to have been rewarded or ignored.

(Even if you do not agree these grievances are valid, that doesn’t mean you can’t listen to what those who have them, have to say.)

Spencer also writes that a ‘thug class’ remains ‘wedded to the past.” Buried within that is an insight that I think deserves a more nuanced unpacking.

In the years since the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland has steadfastly refused to construct a comprehensive public policy for ‘dealing with the past’ which might include (judging from such processes in other contexts and the largely ignored recommendations of the Eames-Bradley Report):

  • meaningful public recognition of the suffering of victims,
  • apologies,
  • story-telling,
  • information recovery,
  • respectful conversations about how we will choose to remember the violence,
  • opportunities for private and public forgiveness,
  • stories of hope.

In a discussion on Sunday Sequence after the 12th, Brian Rowan intimated that the 12th riots and flag protests are symptomatic of the wider problems that we have tried to sweep under the carpet since the Agreement. He called for international mediators to facilitate dialogues on particular issues and mentioned, albeit in passing, that we still haven’t dealt with the past systematically.

And that’s part of the reason why the Past keeps walking our streets.

Berating people to ‘get with the programme’ and demanding they join ‘US’ in a modern, cosmopolitan Northern Ireland, won’t keep the Past from walking our streets.

Pointing out that people don’t care about parades and watching as they retreat to the suburbs and the garden centres, won’t keep the Past from walking our streets.

There’s a future for Northern Ireland in which the Orange Order continues to walk the streets, and does so in a way that does not stir up the violence and sectarianism of the Past.

We won’t get there as ‘US’ and ‘THEM.’ We will have to walk there together.



Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at

  • Sweetcheeks

    With respect, the CaC blog is a load of straw man rubbish. It begins with a false premise. The author can’t even get the population of Northern Ireland correct. It demonises the people of Ardoyne for having the audacity to voice their objection to a quasi-fascist parade make its way through their area.

    As for this piece, once one looks past the wishy-washy aspirations one finds not one constructive proposal, nor any comprehension of cold, sectarian realities.

    Let the peace and conflict resolution gravy train roll on. Chooo chooo.

  • Ruarai

    Sorry Gladys, but not buying that one.

    Every year we see wanton violence – and people clearly reveling in it. Only for someone to come along, as I believe you have here, and act as a ventriloquist for what they’re supposedly really saying.

    To paraphrase you bluntly:

    “I know it looks like thugs burning flags, effigies of neighbors and church leaders and so on but it’s much more complicated than that. It’s really the painful cry for a restructuring of the Historical Inquires Team and a remodeling of the Education and Employment sectors.”

    No. It’s nothing of the sort.

    It’s wanton, nihilistic violence. It’s pathetic. It’s thuggish. It’s a minority activity. It’s 2 fingers up to the rest of society.

    And it’s long past it’s sell by date.

  • Its NOT the Past which is walking our streets. Its the Present.
    If we believe that Orangemen have the “right” to walk the streets and the residents have the “right” to protest….then surely the Past has the “right” to walk the streets and the Future has the “right” to protest.

    If we claim that the Orange Marchers and Residents have equal rights, then logically we must accept that the Past has parity with the Future.
    If we believe the mantra that no one side is superior….then logically we have to accept the conflict resolutionists working towards THEIR version of the Future are not morally superior to those who really enjoy the Past.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you, fitzjameshorse1745, for summing it all up so very straightforwardly. Now that all decent men and women have outlawed discrimination of all kinds, we seem to have lost all ability to discriminate intellegently between anything whatsoever. The second law of thermodynamics states that everything moves towards a condition of thermodynamic equilibrium, where all is reduced to the same general condition of chaotic disorganisation and as our political systems themselves evolve towards this entropic state, nothing can, or should, be judged as superior, or even different in any way from any other thing.

    Ernest Gellner, the social anthropologist, used the term “Counter Entropic” in speaking of those people who can do no other than differ from the absolute consensus of opinion (liberal or otherwise) that all modern states (Democracies too!!) require from their “subjects” on all important issues. God help them nowadays……

  • If I understood that…I would probably agree with it.
    We have reduced Culture to the level that its not good or bad…just equal.
    Im not a big fan of Anthropology…always seems to reduce us all to being in a test tube, a weird form of imperialism. Anthropologists are always French, British and German and the subjects of their studies are in Amazonian jungles or NIHE housing estates in East and West Belfast.Ive always thought it would be a form of parity if anthroplogists were studied by their subjects.

    But I certainly believe that academics should not equate their intellectual supriority as a moral superiority.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I’m sorry, fitzjameshorse1745, looking at it again I see that my posting really required about 2000 words to even begin to unpack all of what I was attempting to say. But I was so very taken with the image you were presenting of the complete entropic reduction of every value to an absolute base line. So I was trying to word play the different possibilities of that “no, no” word for the discerning liberal, “discrimination,” dropping it into the context of your description of complete idiot “parity of esteem” for absolutely everything no matter how dangerious, “…just equal.”

    So my posting was was attempting to describe the difference between carefully discriminating “between” the genuinely useful and the useless, or between helpful and hurtful, or on the other hand ignorantly discriminating “against” something on the grounds of an inherited loathing. But I suppose that those two words describe the unenviable position of any honest thinking liberal, evaluating “between” possibilities rather than chosing to be simply thoughtlessly “against.”

    Gellner is worth a read. While I find I would usually agree with you about the general “othering” trend in anthropology that no amount of value added post-modernism seems to be able to get rid of, Gellner’s analysis of the contradictions within nationalisms is well worth an extended read. Gellner sees the core historical trend development of nationalisms towards centralised modern states as being utterly at variance with those sincere localised expressions of cultural identity that all centralised political nationalisms feed off to drum up votes. In the process, identity is smoothed out and reduced to a condition of entropy to serve political needs. Gellner’s “counter entropic” individuals (and cultures) are those that cannot be assimulated into the grinder of these national (and international) institutions. They produce “uneven development” and must be, if at all possible, destroyed or at the very least manginalised.

    My own distaste for politicians such as Peter Robinson playing the Somme card a few weeks back, as expressed on other Slugger threads, draws on Gellner as well as my own distaste for any form of the exploitation of the real suffering of others for political advantage:

    On the subject of “anthroplogists [being] studied by their subjects” the nearest I can come to that is a neat little article where an anthropologist based in the ROI studied mysogeny in accademia. I quote one of my eralier postings:

    “Even after decades we in the Emerald Isle could easily make the front running in the mysogeny stakes with anyone down under. Some time back I read an excellent 2010 article by Pat O’Connor in the academic journal “Iris Socheolaíochta na hÉireann” that discussed the dominance of male oriented values among the senior management of our universities. The article is called “Is senior management in Irish universities male-dominated? What are the implications?” The culture of these (representitive) institutions is described as “homosocial, unemotional and conformist” and much of Pat’s analyisis could (as she implies herself) be applied to all of the other institutions in the ROI, while these values continue to pervade the entire social fabric of the state.”

    I think that Pat quite clearly shows just why, in your excellent observation, “academics should not equate their intellectual supriority as a moral superiority.”

    Well, at least its still less than the threatened 2000 words……

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Sorry, typos abound towards the end, but I think its still reasonably clear…..

  • John Ó Néill

    A ‘Drumcree-style approach’ is not perpetrating the worst type of stereo-typing of the ‘PUL community’, it is factual description of the tactic of repeatedly applying to march on a route the PC will say no to. Not only have they now applied for two further parades along the Crumlin Road route, but the Grand Lodge has issued a statement talking of months of protest (a subconscious admission of the futility of the applications).

    As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, this year was 200th anniversary of the first 12th July riots in Belfast. That’s a long time to ignore a problem and trying to reframe it seems to be merely avoiding dealing with it.

  • Academia is neutral.
    This is de-humanising and I mean that as a fact rather than a criticism.
    For example a reasonable person might say that there is no parity of esteem between the “church” in Kansas(?)that pickets funerals of American servicemen and shouts homophobic slogans and the families of victims.
    A reasonable person might say that English Defence League marchers and the residents of Tower Hamlets are not equal. Or the respectful mourners in Wotton Bassett and Islamist extemists.
    The Ku Klux Klan and members of a Jewish community in New York.

    People might say that Ardoyne is not the same and anyway we are talking equal rights rather than equality of the case they present. But the consequence of indulging extremists (and I dont mean those in any particular tribe) has been to give them a degree of respectability and access that they dont deserve.
    Splitting the difference…EVERYTHING is 50-50. This recipe…this flawed recipe for Conflict Resolution is a mathematical formula. It has little to do with Justice.
    Academics can of course congratulate themselves that they have the ability to detach themselves from their “tribe”.
    But detaching themselves from their own better instincts and/or reasoning is betraying themselves and years of study
    Of course politicians of all parties who contribute to the 50-50 mantra are betraying whatever they believe..
    In the name of Conflict Resolution we have been asked to accept unreasonably in my view…that everything is 50-50.
    If people ask us to suspend our critical values or our tribalism to accept this…then logically they cant imply that the Future is better than the Past.

  • brian2013

    The original post reminds of Chris Rock’s controversial stand-up routine about the challenges facing African-American culture.